TO THE DAIRY BORN— that’s one way to describe Richard Wagner, who “grew up on top of a cheese factory,” he says, in rural Waupaca County (his father was the factory operator). His family later founded Weyauwega Milk Products, which Wagner joined after earning a degree in industrial engineering. Wagner helped run the company for decades that included a merger and, later, a renaming as Trega Foods, which was sold in 2008. Along the way Wagner became a licensed cheesemaker and a leader in numerous dairy organizations, including serving as a member of the governor’s Dairy 2020 Council. • Nine years ago Wagner began doing some of his most creative and satisfying work. He and his family purchased a 500-cow dairy located next to their farm and transformed it into a 2,200-cow operation that serves as a showcase of environmental innovation. Quantum Dairy, located just outside Weyauwega, includes an anaerobic manure digester, 7,000 feet of underground heat piping and state-of-the-art stormwater runoff and leachate control.
• You frequently open your farm for public tours. Why?
I feel the need to help people understand that a dairy farm may need to expand in order to be able to afford to adopt the best known practices and best technology to efficiently produce food and minimize use of water and loss of soil. Other benefits of expanding are to improve employee working conditions, to improve cattle health and treatment and to minimize the cost of manure handling while protecting our surface and ground water. I really like to point out that an operating dairy helps synergistically sustain the beautiful open countryside so that it can continue to exist for the enjoyment of Wisconsin’s residents and tourists alike.
• How would you compare farming when you started to farming today? Does it feel like a new profession?
For more than 100 years, farming in Wisconsin has been involved in a slow paradigm shift that is nowhere near over and that has resulted in far fewer farms. These farms are more productive and larger, yet most still rely on a family unit for their management. Dairy farming is definitely a new profession that requires less physical labor but more management of employees, contractors, consultants, risk, finances, new technology adaptation and succession planning. Today’s dairy operator has the option of planning for much more free time. The result is an exciting profession that is competing for the brightest and best rather than continuing to cause flight from the farm.
• What advice would you give future farmers?
I would advise future farmers to embrace change. There is nothing that can’t be done if two generations of a family farm, or an older farmer and a young person, decide to do something together. It is important that the older person defer to the younger person as soon as possible. Of course, education is the key to the future. It can be helpful to buy land when it is available, even though it is always too expensive and never available at the right time. If you are trying to decide whether an idea is a good one or not—if it breaks down walls between people, it’s a good idea. If it builds walls between people, it’s a bad one.